It’s hard singing a song you didn’t write. Get too close, and you’re a pale imitation; stray too far, and you’ve stomped all over something beautiful. Few artists ever find the right balance.

But if you’re looking for it, you might think of starting below New York City, on a bustling subway platform in Wall Street Station. There, about eight years ago, bundled up and hidden in the first hard winds of winter, Liah Alonso managed to perform the best cover of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright that I’ve heard in a long, long time.

While we can’t really be sure, I’d be willing to bet that the woman on the left in the orange hat probably thinks so too. Look closely, and you can make out the way she looks over her shoulder, like an old friend just tapped her on it.

There’s something about this bit of music that’ll do that to people. Some kind of strange, hypnotic countermelody, made of overtones you can only hear when it’s done extraordinarily well.

The song is Bob Dylan’s poem for wandering souls—an old tale of loving and leaving, executed here with the care and grace of a woman who’s done plenty of both. It’s one of those rare, wonderful pieces that, when first encountered, makes you feel like it’s something you’ve had in your head for years.

Liah, of course, has known it since childhood. It’s a song she falls back on often, and calls it “ a friend on the subway platform or street.”

Under her fingers, the accompaniment ebbs and rolls in all the right places. Vocal lines get dressed up with riffs and variations so well-placed and tasteful that even the most hardened folk-should-sound-ugly kind of purists can like it. The words come off just as sad, dejected and hopeful as they’re meant to.


She cites Dylan as a very early influence on her music, along with Madonna, the Beatles, and hundreds of big books of poetry. As a child, she’d spend hours revelling in an art-fueled state of consumption and creation, writing her own songs and playing them for anyone who’d listen. On her childhood, she says:

“My mom was a single parent and worked a lot so I was frequently on my own. I found a friend in music and poetry and I would listen and read and create much of the time. I was constantly making up silly songs to get a laugh out of whomever would listen and I would put on spontaneous shows. Thats probably why my mom enrolled me in musical theater classes and I became a theater kid in love with the stage.”

Liah left home for New York University with nothing but luggage and her guitar, which is all she’s really carried ever since. After graduation, she worked for a few years as an interpreter in prisons and halfway houses, before taking to the streets and subway tunnels with her music.

Today the songs he shows are still spontaneous (with the exception of a few planned gigs in NYC hot-spots like The Little Bar and The Bitter End), and the songs haven’t lost their lovely, childlike levity. They express the joy, hard truth and pain of being alive with a gaiety that doesn’t seem forced or naïve. It’s hardly any wonder that she wants the whole world to hear them.

So, she decided last year to set off on a kind of world tour, writing “80 songs in 80 cities with 80 new friends [she hasn’t] met yet.”

qzsTB6QNabk2SqLEt55QgbdCcf1LgLQeYF9dLBhPGjLgE1KN7DtxC9DjELbxfepG1The project, aptly titled “Around the World in 80 Songs” will be the subject of a subscription-based web series of the same name. Liah Alonso—who, by the way, is also widely known as “The Gypsy Cowgirl”—will ride into town with her guitar and immerse herself in the local street-music scene. She’ll learn the tunes, get a feel for the rhythms, meet a few good songwriters, and try to come up with a song that blends the native sound with her own wild, lively energy. She’ll even pick up some of the language to do it.

Ideally, she’d like the show to capture what it’s like going into a previously unknown, strange place and making a kind of creative home out of it. “It’s magic,” she says, “how playing a song and busking in a foreign land opens up a new landscape.”

She’s been through Brazil already, absorbing what she could from the culture and collaborating with local guitarist Daniel Aloliver on a song about “looking for someone real in a world that feels fake.”

From what little we can hear in the trailer, the tune seems like an honest, hard-hitting blend of modern Spanish rhythms and American melodic sensibility. From the rap/spoken-word verses to a soaring chorus, it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d hope to get from such a unique, collaborative venture.

If it’s any indication of what she’ll be putting out for the rest of the project, we’ll all be very lucky to hear what comes next.